Last weekend at the NHL draft in Philadelphia, Capitals coach Barry Trotz emphasized the importance of finalizing his coaching staff before the start of free agency. Now we know why.
“I think the first phase of making our team better is, I thought Mac [Caps general manager Brian MacLellan] did a good job of getting the staff in place right before the draft here,” Trotz said.
“That free agency period, if you’re going to talk to a free agent, he knows what the staff is. I think that’s really important.”
On Monday morning, Trotz will begin his on-ice coaching career with the Capitals when he welcomes 23 prospects to the team’s annual development camp at Kettler.
But you can make the argument that his role as team salesman last weekend is just as crucial to the Capitals’ future success as any of the Xs and Os he draws up this season.
Just ask defenseman Brooks Orpik, who signed a five-year, $27.5 million with the Capitals on Tuesday, two days after meeting with Trotz at Kettler.
“When I met with Barry and saw what his plan and his vision was,” Orpik said, “it was kind of a no-brainer for me, to be honest.”
Or defenseman Matt Niskanen, who signed a seven-year, $40.25 contract with the Caps after a probing phone conversation with Orpik following his visit to Washington.
“I heard nothing but great things about Barry Trotz and the way things are going there,” Niskanen said.
Or backup goaltender Justin Peters, who met with Trotz and goaltending coach Mitch Korn before signing a two-year, $1.9 million deal with the Caps. Asked if there was one conversation he had that swayed him to sign with the Caps, Peters pointed to his sit-down with Trotz.
“When a head coach on a team looks you in the eye and tells you he wants you to be there, that goes a long way,” Peters said. “If you’re to pinpoint it, that’d be it. The head coach on the team looking you in the eye and saying, ‘We want you to be a part of this.’”
Of course, selling a player on a team and paying the price it costs to sign him are two entirely different things. In his 16 years in Nashville, Trotz always felt handcuffed by the internal salary cap of the Predators, who rarely came within $10 million of the salary cap.
The Capitals have been spending close to the cap pretty much since 2008, when they handed Alex Ovechkin the richest contract in NHL history, a 13-year, $124 million deal that takes up nearly 14 percent of the Caps’ $68 million payroll.
The Caps entered the offseason with about $13 million in cap space and spent $12.2 million on Niskanen, Orpik and Peters. All three players said Trotz was the overriding factor in their decisions to come to Washington.
If nothing else, the Caps’ activity in the free-agent market is an indication of how strong Trotz’ voice will be in the construction of the Capitals.
“Obviously, [MacLellan] knows where he wants to allocate dollars,” Trotz said in the days leading up to free agency, “but he’s been great in terms of communication and what we want and a select number of players right now for the allocated dollars we have.
“… The organization wants to win. So I don’t think that’s a question. They’ll be smart. It’s not going to be reckless or anything like that, I’m sure.”
Reckless or not, the Capitals are quickly becoming a team built in the image of Barry Trotz.